Striving for perfection yields minimal results. But how do we get comfy with being less than perfect?

Why and How I Embrace Imperfection

My inner circle knows that my dominant Saboteur — my leader of my inner critics, after the Judge — is the Stickler, who takes order, organization, and perfectionism way too far. While I view the strength of this saboteur as quality, until recently, holding out for actions without flaws has sabotaged any true career growth. (You can learn about your own saboteurs here.)

From reporting on women leadership topics for the Guardian, I know learning curves propel us to new learning and exposure. But how do we embrace imperfection, especially when learning a new role, launching a business (as I’ve done this past 2.5 years) and building our personal brand? In this week’s post, I’m offering five ways I’ve grown in this area — with more growth to go — and how I counter the familiar, negative self talk.

Remember: Imperfection Prevails

My inner Judge and Perfectionist Stickler often tag team on this lie that all branding messages (but mine) are perfect. Yet, what is perfect? (Highly subjective, right?) Business and political leaders all over post messages which (in my view) don’t seem perfect at all. Nor do the leaders I revere seem to strive for blemish-free messaging. Most seem to thrive at working in a space of not knowing, place a premium on authenticity, humility, and genuineness. They know: any fumble or mumble can show vs. tell that truth. Bottom line: Recast any mindset on perfection. And know: the bar is not sky high.

Get Clear on Your Purpose

I’ve found another counter to my Stickler and Judge ties to asking about my purpose. Here goes… Through producing ongoing explainer videos, podcasts, and thought leadership pieces, like this one, I hope to:

  • Inspire other entrepreneurs/coaches/reinventors to build their courage. Feel part of something bigger than me.
  • Enjoy communicating publicly so I learn and don’t lose the vital craft.
  • Ensure I can relate to my own coachees’ discomfort. (My rationale: How can I encourage bravery in my coachees, who often find fear paralyzes them, if I don’t do brave things?)
  • Attract business for group coaching programs, private practice clients, a future memoir, my new podcasts — whatever comes next.

When I look at this list, the product — i.e. whatever I produce, feels less important. The action of the message becomes the vital move vs. the quality. Knowing and feeling this point overrides perfection and pulls me to action.

Commit To Something

Ensuring I commit to one brave thing a week keeps me moving forward and quietens my perfectionist. When time evades me, I do something quick but slightly uncomfortable, like commenting on the work of others I admire, famous people sometimes, like Indra Nooyi, Sir Richard Branson, and even hashtag their name as I post.

I must still tame fussy, nitpicky thoughts that I must have a PhD, be a TED talker, a NY Times bestselling author, etc. to offer a thing. (Nope. I’m Debbi, a business owner and coach who started off life on a sheep farm in New Zealand.) Provided I add something new and aligned with my values or focus, my views feel they count. All the while, this action, this commitment turns the volume down on this need for perfect.

Capture the Feeling. Go Raw.

When I post explainer videos on my podcasts or anything which feels monumental, like exceeding 2,000 individual coaching hours or certifying with Positive Intelligence as a mental fitness coach, I go for raw footage (often outdoors) and wholly unscripted to capture the emotion behind the message. I know imperfections exist — so many with this ad-hoc approach — but the want to share the moment and to uplift, inspire, and motivate any audience to pursue their dream feels more important.

The more I go with this approach, the more I quall the nervous, narrow need for perfection, which continues to build confidence. See where I’m going with this? Overriding our perfectionist builds our confidence and presence. Based on how we feel when we act, we understand our unique offering and how we want to stand out.

Give Yourself a Deadline.

This last point reminds me of the power of deadlines and shorter runways — almost like having less wiggle room to back out— pulls us into action. An early news internship with Wired News, long prior to my studies in journalism at UC Berkeley, introduced to me this concept.

An editor terrified me with a one-hour deadline for a breaking news story. Network Solutions, the company then providing domain names to website owners, started charging for their free service — a first. Arming me with the press release and contact for their press agent, he told me: “go forth.”

I truncated my panic attack to five minutes — a quick bathroom sob— and then pushed through, called the publicist, got the quote, and wrote the piece, using the keyboard keys to calm trembling hands and silence fears. Two big lessons surfaced: Self talk to get on with it and the rigid deadline worked. (The story, which I just re-found on Google and link to here, remains a personal favorite, even the headline, which came to me in the final minute: No Dinero, No Domain.) Lesson two: The short timeframe and responsibility to not let Wired News be out-scooped by Reuters, BBC, etc. showed vs. told me: Good can be good enough.

Lately, for my newer explainer videos (which come to me on a whim by the way) I’ve revisited this news reporter technique. I produce my videos in a few minutes, between coaching sessions, or as the sun sets, or, the last hour before leaving somewhere beautiful. Even with my most critical eye, I like these efforts enough to share them. So try giving yourself less vs. more time to re-do, re-finesse, and re-edit. See what the skinny constraint of time does to the muscle of less fuss, more action.

I chose perfectionism and fussiness for this week’s thought leadership post for a reason. I’ve spent countless hours hearing fantastic, talented, gifted — and driven men and women paralyzed with fear but wanting big, life change. They seek full clarity knowing what’s next before moving from what saddens, limits, and/or oppresses them. And I know this feeling, too. But there’s folly in holding out for that perfectionist idea. For me, the worry stemmed from looking back 20+ years later and regretting I’d not met my full potential.

I hope these five ideas spark something to show vs. tell: It’s ok. Make things messy for now, and know that over time, when we continue to feel brave and let go of purity, you’ll get closer to what the true perfect version of you truly looks and feels like.

Debbi Gardiner McCullough coaches and trains immigrant leaders to become more confident, concise, and authentic communicators. From Wisconsin, she owns and runs Hanging Rock Coaching and serves as a communication effectiveness fellow coach to leaders all over the globe with BetterUp.

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New Zealander D G McCullough has written on social trends for the Guardian, the Economist, and the FT. She’s a narrative and communications coach.

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D G McCullough

D G McCullough

New Zealander D G McCullough has written on social trends for the Guardian, the Economist, and the FT. She’s a narrative and communications coach.

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